Why Can’t Bison Roam on Public Lands?

Bison are public wildlife, but it’s confusing because some are also owned as private domestic animals.  The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the model practiced to manage our nation’s wildlife, failed this animal.  Wildlife need areas to roam and bison have been denied that.  We really don’t have a model for free ranging bison, but we can do it. –Glenn Hockett

Photo by Robin Poole.
Photo by Robin Poole.
I had a chance to sit down and interview Glenn Hockett, the Volunteer President of Gallatin Wildlife Association in Bozeman Montana, about wild bison and what their future may hold.  The Gallatin Wildlife Association, like NWF, has been working for decades on behalf of wild bison restoration. Right now is a very important moment for wild bison, as Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are considering year-round bison occupancy of public lands both west and north of Yellowstone Park.

Yellowstone bison need your help today—tell Montana wildlife parks agencies to stop hazing bison that have roamed onto ideal grazing lands.

What is the major conflict with bison in the Yellowstone ecosystem?

It’s the social intolerance of the public lands livestock industry.  They want native bison confined like domestic livestock to small areas.  There is tension over public land use and they have created an illusion that bison cannot be respected and conserved as free-ranging wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Area.  They have an irrational amount of fear-based political power, which has led to vast “no tolerance zones” for bison, severing their access to critical habitat outside the park. Adjoining nationally important public lands, including Wildlife Management Areas, National Wildlife Refuges, and National forests are off limits to native bison because a drop-dead line has been drawn in the sand.

Bison being Hazed back into Yellowstone using a helicopter. Photo: Josh Mogerman
Bison being Hazed back into Yellowstone using a helicopter. Flickr photo by Josh Mogerman.

We hear a lot about disease concerns and brucellosis in and around Yellowstone National Park, resulting in hazing and shooting bison that wander outside of the park.  Are any of these conflicts being worked out?

Unfortunately, thousands of bison have been hazed and killed over the years in the name of brucellosis prevention.  However, both elk and bison have been exposed to this livestock disease, and elk are allowed to range freely.  Where we have agreement—we don’t want one more domestic cows to get brucellosis.  We can work together to prevent brucellosis transmission from wildlife to cattle, but killing wildlife is not the solution.

Brucellosis is largely a seasonally contagious disease associated with the last trimester of pregnancy through calving (Feb. 15–June 15). Cattle can be protected from disease transmission from Greater Yellowstone wildlife by managing the livestock use of important wildlife winter and calving ranges.  In research studies conducted in the Greater Yellowstone Area Brucella bacteria has never persisted in the environment past June 15.  Thus, managing cattle turn out dates until after June 15 is nearly rock solid protection for cattle.  Once female bison have calved, and they typically calve from mid-April to the end of May they no longer pose a threat.  Bull bison never pose a threat of transmission.

Thus, there is no reason for the government to haze or capture any bison after June 15, especially a cow bison with her newborn calf.  Furthermore, we appropriately allow elk to roam freely outside the park, and they have also been exposed to brucellosis, but bison are treated differently.  Is it because they eat grass?

Photo by Robin Poole.
Photo by Robin Poole.
What have been the major changes in bison management in and around the Park the last several years?

There has been a shift in the debate from the talk of eradication of brucellosis to managing the disease.  We’ve had two Environmental Assessments for increased bison habitat on the north and west sides of the Park. There is increased public awareness about the plight of bison and the opportunities for bison restoration and conservation. In addition, we’ve had implementation of a Designated Surveillance Area for cattle—this has helped “un-demonize” the disease, and helps ensure cattle stay brucellosis-free.

But we have a long ways to go. We all agree there are places bison shouldn’t be, but we have yet to agree on where bison can be.  The opportunity to restore and conserve native bison as respected free-ranging wildlife to the Greater Yellowstone Area, largely on national public lands, is slowly but surely taking place. National Wildlife Federation members can help make this happen.

Springtime calving season in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
Springtime calving season in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Flickr photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What is the issue with private property rights and bison?

In some cases there are no problems. Many private landowners enjoy bison. The problem is we aren’t asking the landowner if they are ok with bison and, if not, how might we build tolerance.  Court cases have said wildlife—including bison—are part of the landscape.

However, the livestock industry has created the illusion that every private landowner hates bison. That just isn’t the case.

Many small and large private landowners in the Greater Yellowstone Area are bison advocates. However, as it currently stands, if you want to allow native bison on your private lands, you can’t. Bison advocates’ private property rights are being violated, because the Montana Department of Livestock can enter their land without their permission to remove or kill bison. This law needs to be repealed, but that takes time. On the other hand, if bison are “threatening” livestock on private lands, the DOL is required to remove these bison (or the private landowner can kill the bison). The anti-bison crowd’s private property rights are protected.

How long has the Gallatin Wildlife Association been involved with bison issues?

Too long, I have pictures of bison in the early 1990s in the upper Gallatin, but they are gone. We have a chance to restore that population right now. We have some very dedicated people who have been working on this now for close to 30 years. Just like the bison, we remain patient and persistent.

Bison along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail Yellowstone National Park, U.S. Forest Service photo, by Joni Packard.
Bison along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail Yellowstone National Park, U.S. Forest Service photo, by Joni Packard.

What has the Gallatin Wildlife Association done to help with bison management issues around the park?

We’ve been instrumental in getting these animals respected as a valued native wildlife species, protecting and connecting their habitat and increasing public awareness.  Bison are native wildlife.  It’s that simple.  We need to respect them as such.

Do you think the challenges with Yellowstone will change?

Of course, however, at times it doesn’t seem like were moving forward an inch.  But the public debate has changed from one of “eradication” to respecting and protecting bison as a valued native wildlife species.  They need habitat and we have that habitat here in Montana. Rather than trying to fence the bison in, we should be working to “fence” the conflicts out.  Let them show us the way.

Photo by Robin Poole.
Photo by Robin Poole.
The Gallatin Wildlife Association is a local grassroots affiliate of the Montana Wildlife Federation based in Bozeman, Montana.  For more information about GWA visit: http://www.gallatinwildlifeassociation.org/

Take Action ButtonYellowstone bison need your help today—tell Montana wildlife parks agencies to stop hazing bison when they roam onto ideal grazing lands.